The word, Pareidolia, is defined as, “a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (usually an image) being mistakenly perceived as recognizable.” The word comes from Greek para- amiss, faulty, wrong + eidolon, diminutive of eidos appearance, form.
Even though you may never have heard of this word before, you’ve probably already experienced the phenomenon. Have you ever tried to see shapes in the clouds? (“Oh look! That one’s a bunny!”)
The human brain is a pattern recognition engine. That makes sense because our survival as a species has depended on this. As an infant, it is a survival trait to recognize faces above us, and then start to smile and coo. It gets us that extra attention that takes the form of care, love, warmth, and food.
As an adult, recognizing patterns could mean the difference between dinner, and not. In the past our ancestors worked very hard to see the dappled deer in the stand of trees. We also look for patterns that mean danger to us – such as a crouching predator in the bushes, or the familiar pattern of an oncoming vehicle. Finding such patterns quickly could save your life.
We use pattern recognition every day, in the supermarket, for example. When browsing a crowded shelf for a specific product, you don’t really look for a word on a label; you look for a distinctive, familiar pattern. (Of course, not being able to locate a box of laundry soap probably won’t result in your demise.)
The problem with using this wonderful ability of ours is the associated side effects. In Michael Shermer’s book, “How We Believe” (Amazon) he describes that while detecting potentially life threatening patterns is a survival skill, falsely identifying a pattern as life threatening will usually NOT get you hurt or killed. A man who runs away from a tiger that wasn’t really there will stay alive, able to procreate. His pattern recognition ability, along with the tendency to falsely see patterns that are not there, will be passed to his descendants.
I see faces in my laundry
Laundry day at the Calladus home comes about once every ten days or so, and on that day I dump all the clothes from the hamper and start sorting them. Sometimes I’m interrupted in the process, so a pile of clothes might stay where it is for a bit. If I happen to be looking at the pile in an abstract frame of mind, I’ll see faces jump out at me; usually grotesque, or Disney-esque faces.
When I was religious, and younger, this phenomenon used to concern me. (It scared me as a kid!) After all, my world-view included giving credence to the unseen, how much more credible would be a goofy, even malevolent face that I COULD see! This is similar to seeing the face of Satan in the smoke and flames of the World Trade Center. Now that I have a skeptical world view such images are no longer scary, but are now only amusing.
Let’s take a look at my laundry for an example – here is a photo of (some) of this week’s laundry. (Where else on the ‘net can you get a skeptical Atheist’s photos of laundry?) You can click on the photograph to see it full size of you wish. Don’t worry; I separated out my underwear before snapping the picture!
Next, here is what jumped out at me when I look at this laundry. It‘s a Troll! You can see the crooked nose, the beady eyes, this misshapen head. Troll ears are big and floppy too, did you know that? No? The proof is right in the picture! I mean, c’mon!.
Another consequence of pattern recognition is that humans see patterns in events, not just forms. The gambler sees patterns in wins and losses that seem to coincide with the ugly Hawaiian shirt that he wears (or doesn’t wear). Conspiracy theorists see patterns everywhere! And religious people see patterns that they attribute to God or some other aspect of their religion.
Pattern recognition is probably the basis of all religion. Granted prayers, miracles, and divine visions can all be attributed to the human ability to create meaning out of the random noise of life.
The ability to see patterns in nature is valuable for everyone. But we need to accept that there are times when what we see isn’t really there – that our senses can be fooled. Magicians and charlatans both make a living from fooling our senses and our brains. The only real counter to this is to be forewarned that this is possible, and to double check the laundry to make sure the troll isn’t REALLY there.